From The Archives

When the Lights Went Out in New York City

The Voice’s coverage of the 2003 blackout reads like a warning of what we’re in for again as Republicans ignore infrastructure needs


It was a Thursday afternoon and most of the Village Voice staff was going about its business at 36 Cooper Square. Then the lights — and everything else electrical, including the desk phones — went dead. Flip phones flipped open, but dialing out was a crapshoot — the lines were jammed, if you could get a signal at all. Editors sent writers out across the city to research stories for the following week’s edition, which would come out just a few days later, on Tuesday evening. There was still plenty of time for reporters such as Wayne Barrett, James Ridgeway, and Cynthia Cotts to dig into the history of infrastructure neglect that led to the August 14, 2003, blackout.

Barrett zeroed in on New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki: “There he was on Larry King Live, the governor of a state that couldn’t even watch him, promising to get to the bottom of the first 21st-century blackout, looking for any culprit but himself. After eight and a half years of the most disastrous energy policies in New York history, George Pataki spent the last few days frantically turning himself into a human floodlight, scanning an eight-state collapsed grid for a blameworthy glitch, when he needed only to shine the klieg on himself.” Barrett also noted that other parts of the Northeast region dodged the outage because they had avoided aligning their systems with New York’s: “Pataki policies have turned New York into a ‘regional pariah,’ with manic deregulation, skyrocketing prices, and both transmission and capacity disinvestment driving other, sounder systems away.” Additionally, Barrett ferreted out the campaign contributions from energy suppliers and the political favoritism that led to the catastrophe. Read Barrett’s full article.

James Ridgeway’s mordantly headlined “Power to the People? Hardly.” had a local and federal perspective: “Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don’t turn off the light when leaving the room and don’t want power lines running through their backyards.”

And then he pointed out the ways in which Bush the Second’s administration had set the stage for the blackout: “Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what’s worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn’t have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers. If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies.”

And then Ridgeway delivered a conclusion that could have been written last year when Republicans rammed through yet another tax cut for the richest Americans: “Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal’s social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.”

Cynthia Cotts’s “It’s Deregulation, Stupid” highlighted a Daily News headline, “Experts know zip over zap,” and then went on to remind readers that New Yorkers were not the only ones without power that summer of 2003: “The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, ‘We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.’ He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.”

Cotts referenced a Times story that said one of the blackout’s causes was “an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules.”

Which sounds very much like the deregulatory dream of Trump and the current Republican Congress.